May 17, 2012

Habermas, Bakhtin and Wikipedia

A nice scholarly work, which, unfortunately, suffered from the constraints of the research article genre: Cimini, N., & Burr, J. (2012). An aesthetic for deliberating online: Thinking through “universal pragmatics” and “dialogism” with reference to Wikipedia. The Information Society, 28(3), 151-160. Routledge. doi: 10.1080/01972243.2012.669448. If the authors were allowed to write in an essay style, they could have elaborated on their own insights rather than trying to objectify their analysis and fit it into categories of empirical research.

The paper begins with an observation that Habermasian theory of "universal pragmatics" is often used to support the claims that the Internent with its forums, chats, and other forms of massive distributed communication has a potential to become a vehicle for deliberative democracy based on the principles of openness, accountability, and rationality. Habermas wrote a lot about rational deliberations and its potential to facilitate justice and democracy. He was criticized a lot for being idealistic and for implying that everybody can be articulate, rational and willing to participate (the homogenization of discourse communities). To go beyond such normative homogenizing theorizing the authors suggest to use the Bakhtinian notions of "dialogism" and "carnival". They look at two cases on Wikipedia: stem cells and transhumanism in an attempt to demonstrate how by using both Habermasian and Bakhtinian approaches we can combine the normative and the empirical and figure out what kind of interventions are needed to bring social change.

Bakhtin was concerned with power and how it is reproduced within the language. Similarly to Foucault, he also sought to explain how power relations can be subverted through language. Bakhtin used the novels of Dostoevsky to show that the characters in those novels interacted in a dialogue in which each voice had an equal right. This, according to Bakhtin, was a form of continuous dialogism that could facilitate re-definitions of the world. Bakthin also introduced the term “carnivalesque” to describe how the carnival situation relied on laughter and grotesque to promote change and “the merry negation of uniformity and similarity”. Carnivalesque literature (Rabelais' "Gargantua and Pantagruel"), like carnivals themselves, suspended hierarchic distinctions and allowed for reconsideration of notions of usual life.

The Wikipedia articles on stem cells and transhumanism had a lot of ad hominem argumentation, claims to authority and other elements of irrational discourse. However, the authors show that such irrational argumentation actually helped to reach consensus:

Again, the delicate consensus that was achieved among these various editors was brought about through a clash of opposing points of view, rather than through reasoned or rational discussion. As was the case with the display of userboxes and in the debates over stem cells, discussed earlier, this exchange on genetic engineering further undermines the idea that Wikipedia approximates rational discourse. We can see both the purchase of grotesque language in political deliberation (a crapshoot), forcing a response from Loremaster, and in that response yet more attempts to construct personal authority through unverifiable accounts of “best knowledge.” In the end, however, this was not an obstacle to communicative reason. Instead, these seemingly irrational methods of argumentation facilitated further discussion and eventually agreement, inclining Loremaster to reconsider his views and later provide evidence in support of his claims...

Basically, the paper invites us to reconsider the idea that rational discourse is the only way to achieve meaningful consensus. The authors suggest paying more attention to "the emancipatory potential of seemingly irrational methods of persuasion" (section "Conclusion", para 1). It's a powerful idea that needs elaboration (which was not done here). I wasn't convinced that Bakhtinian ideas were helpful here, but again I don't think the authors had a chance to work on it properly. What I would be interested in exploring is whether having a goal (e.g., a stable entry in Wikipedia) improves chances of consensus and whether online communication (as opposed to f2f) mitigates conflict. It'd also be nice to see clearly outlined suggestions for interventions mentioned at the beginning of the paper.